Category Archives: 2017: New Orleans

One Night in Tennessee

Old Weathered Mailbox

Sept. 9 | Day 3: We arrive after dark, the GPS giving me muddled directions, or maybe I was just tired and confused. Linda and I roll into the driveway around nine o’clock, I think.

And yet the woman I have come so far to see and her husband are still holding dinner, hugging us as soon as we get off the motorcycles.

“Forty years ago, did you ever think we’d be meeting like this?” she asks me, and I have to say, honestly, no, no, I did not.

Let us call her The Poet. She was a girl I’d known in high school, a true poet, a perceptive and heartfelt writer, a genius, and one of the kindest, gentlest and most Zen-centered people I’ve ever known.

She was best friends with The Artist, another girl I knew, a gifted artist and soulful poet and writer who dazzles me with her intellect, insight, empathy and clarity of thought.

We hung out together (as we used to say) but they were a binary star I orbited at a distance since I could not match their brilliance.

I admired both. I learned from them and remembered them — though it was less a case of remembering and more of never forgetting. After graduation we built our separate lives, fanning out across the country, across decades.

Forty years — what a mammoth block of time. It’s been that long since I’ve seen her and now she’s standing before me, and I’m with my wife and our motorcycles, the vehicles of my own time that brought us here, all on a dark driveway in Tennessee.

“Well, come in, come in,” they say. “Are you hungry? We’ve got dinner.”

Since we’re staying the night, I pull the bags off Terra Nova and Linda’s Vespa and we go in to eat. Over savory bowls of Thai-inspired chicken-and-rice soup, we fill in gaps four decades old:

For me, a couple of wives and a series of newspaper jobs around the country. For her, a journey of self-discovery out West, meeting a wonderful man and having children. A deep-rooted faith in their Mormon religion and church.

The night runs late and the dishes grow cold on the table. I want to hear more. She speaks of how they ran their own family dairy farm, honest caregivers of the land, their lives entwined with those of neighbors, community, and church.

I want to hear everything and she tells us this:

Their first child is a loving and happy and intelligent son, and learns to talk and walk early, following them around the house. At age five, he begins fetching mail from the box across the rural road.

An avid talker, he tells his parents about an angel, saying to his mother, “Mom, I saw an Angel and I know what they look like.”

And one day…

“He was running across the road to get the mail and a motorcycle came over the hill,” she says. “He was hit and killed.”

Time stumbles as the shock ripples through us. I had not known, even after all these years. I struggle to focus and a somber voice in the back of my mind whispers I never thought we’d be meeting like this.

I can’t remember what Linda and I say beyond oh, my God and I am so sorry and such; it was inadequate anyway. Still and silent, we listen.

She tells us how she, her husband, their families and everyone they knew were devastated beyond comprehension. She says to her husband, sometime later, “I don’t see how we can survive this.”

And he, from a place of inner strength I did not know could exist, offers the most courageous and unforgettable thing I have ever heard.

He tells her: “We can be bitter, or we can be better.”

Slowly they take up their lives again. The church and community rally around them. They forgive the rider on the motorcycle, giving him back his life. They have more children. They rebuild around the awful loss.

It is very late. We all say good-night and are ushered into a guest bedroom. But it is hours before I sleep.

It’s impossible for me to reconcile the sweet girl I adored in high school and the pain of that day; they cannot exist in the same space. I’m in awe of the strength and courage of her husband, who gave them a way forward. I grieve for the wonderful child I will never know.

And how, dear God, we’ve come to their doorstep on motorcycles.

Time has lurched on, but I am forever haunted. We were only 52 hours into the mission, with 16 days, two thousand miles, and now the rest of our lives to go.

The next day I call The Artist long-distance after we shut down the bikes in Birmingham, Alabama. We talk and I weep a little and she, with her wisdom, pulls me back from the edge.

But Linda and I are subtly changed, tempered somehow, forced to take a different perspective. The belief we can be better takes up residence in my head1.

We’ll find the New Orleans motorcycle ride will be more intense, more deeply felt, than anything we’ve done before. All that’s ahead of us — the fall in Underwood, the stranger in Selma, the lonely sadness of Bryant’s Grocery and everything else — begins this night in Tennessee.

Stone cherub praying


Note: It took more than a year for me to write this story. I’ve shown it to my two friends; they have kindly given permission to post. I could not have done so otherwise.
Addendum: In later correspondence, she tells me, “Following his death I imagined his sweet spirit running across the road into the arms of an Angel while his earthly body was waylaid and left behind.”
1 — Where it stays to this day. And I will testify his words helped me deal with Steve Wargo’s death, 164 days later.
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Clarksburg’s Piece of Pearl Harbor

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Sept. 25 | Day 19: They say the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor at dawn in 1941 hear a Japanese children’s song — Menkoi Kouma1 sung by a teenaged girl — as they follow a Honolulu radio station broadcast to their unsuspecting targets ahead.

The pilots listening to that sweet song are carrying death to the battleships, destroyers and other ships of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The carnage defies description.

More than 2,400 people2 die in the attack. Three battleships — the Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah — are sunk. Eighteen other ships are damaged.

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One of them is the battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48). One hundred and six of her crew are killed. The ship is later raised, repaired and sent into the Pacific theater. It earns five battle stars.

I’m thinking of the West Virginia as our motorcycle ride to New Orleans comes to an end. This is our last day on the road and we’re about 230 miles from Falls Church. We’ll be home this evening.

But first we’re stopping here in Clarksburg, W. Va. I’ve researched the West Virginia’s history for a story that was published on the 75th observance of Pearl Harbor and there’s something from the ship I need to see.

Linda and I park the motorcycles on West Main Street and cross over to the Harrison County Courthouse. It’s a typical county government building, except for its art-deco entrance, which favors two fierce eagles that look uncomfortably close to something you’d find at a Nuremberg rally.

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A flagpole from the West Virginia is supposed to be here. We check the two poles outside the building, one with an American flag, the other with a state flag, but don’t see anything special about them. I carry my helmet into the courthouse to find someone to ask.

Inside, I find three uniformed sheriff’s deputies ensconced behind inch-thick plexiglass and a heavy duty metal detector.

Speaking though a hole in the plexiglass — it’s like shouting down a well — I tell them why I’m here and ask where I can find the relic from the West Virginia.

The deputies look at one another, puzzled. “I’m not sure,” one says.

I thank them and go back outside, determined to look at the poles more closely and check the perimeter of the courthouse.

One of older deputies comes out and motions us over to the American flag pole. Ah, he’s made some inquiries and has come to find us. Good man.

That’s when we see the plaque at the base, plain as day, maybe 15 inches wide.

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The West Virginia was hit by seven torpedoes port side, began to burn, and threatened to capsize. The crew counter-flooded the starboard side and the ship sank upright into the harbor, its main deck nearly even with the waterline.

Fire crews extinguished the flames aboard ship and preparations were soon made to raise the vessel and take her stateside for complete repair.

That’s when the salvage workers started hearing noises, a banging sound, coming from inside the ship, below the waterline. They realize there’s someone still alive on the ship, trapped below decks, making noise in hope of rescue.

There’s no way to get to the trapped men. The harbor water is still thick with diesel fuel; cutting with torches could cause an explosion. There’s a risk of explosive decompression if the hull is breached below water. There’s no way to get to them.

The salvagers keep working. The banging sound continues. Legend has it that the men on guard duty at night put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing it.

The West Virginia is refloated on May 17, 1942, 162 days after the attack. In a dry forward storage room, workers find the bodies of three sailors, Ronald Endicott, 18; Clifford Olds, 20; and Louis “Buddy” Costin, 21.

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There’s an eight-day clock with them, and a calendar with days crossed off in red. The last day marked is Dec. 23, 1941. The men had survived 16 days after the attack.

A Navy officer retrieves the storeroom calendar and sends it to the Pentagon, where it is lost and never seen again. The eight-day Seth Thomas clock was saved and is now on exhibit at the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston, W. Va.

The families are never officially told how the three sailors died. Their grave markers have Dec. 7, 1941, as the date of death. The story slowly seeps out to relatives, other sailors in the Navy.

After extensive repair at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Wash., the West Virginia takes part in significant battles in the Pacific, including Leyte, Mindoro, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The battleship is also part of the massive Navy presence in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese formally sign documents of surrender aboard the USS Missouri. The West Virginia and the light cruiser USS Detroit3 are the only two ships from Pearl Harbor that are in Toyko Bay that day.

The West Virginia was decommissioned in January 1947 and sold for scrap in August 1959. Her jackstaff4 was given to Harrison County in 1963.

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One of the three: Clifford Olds, right, with shipmates Jack Miller, left, and Frank Kosa on the night before Pearl Harbor. Kosa was killed in February 1944.

I think about Pearl Harbor as Linda and I wheel away from Clarksburg. The attack is a story of tragedy, horror, courage5 and profound grief, and America does its best to honor it.

But I believe history would’ve been better served if the documents of surrender had been signed aboard the West Virginia instead of the Missouri6. The ship paid a heavy price at the war’s beginning; she should have been the setting for its end. The ship and her crew — especially Endicott, Olds and Costin — deserved it.


1 — Which translates to Come on a Pony.
2 — The official count is 2,403.
3 — The Detroit was not damaged in the attack.
4 — The flag pole is the West Virginia’s jackstaff, the pole in the bow of the ship.
5 — Doris “Dorie” Miller, a cook aboard the West Virginia, was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism — he fired an anti-aircraft gun at Japanese planes and helped injured men to safety when the ammo ran out. He was the first African American sailor to receive the medal. (If you need further reference, he was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor.”) Miller was killed on Nov, 24, 1943, when his ship the USS Liscome Bay was hit by a torpedo near Butaritari Island.
6 — They say the Missouri was chosen because Harry Truman was from Missouri and had a personal connection with it; his daughter christened the ship. But it was also the flagship of the Third Fleet and served honorably in the war. You could also make a reasonable case for other ships. I can understand that, but I still would have argued strenuously on behalf of the West Virginia.

The Mission Soundtrack, or: How Louis Armstrong and Arlo Guthrie Got Us There

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And in the morning when you filled my eyes 
I knew that day I couldn’t do, ahh, no wrong, I couldn’t do

— Cat Stevens

Sept. 7 | Day 1: We leave well after dark on the first day, just to get underway and put some distance between us and home. The destination is Woodstock, Va., about 85 miles. The motorcycles — and the first song — are ready at 2230 hours.

Two years ago, I started the tradition of playing a song for Linda at the start of each riding day, and this trip is no different. Since we’re heading for New Orleans, choosing her first song, the one she listens to this dark night, is easy: The City of New Orleans, by Arlo Guthrie.

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I loaded about 30 songs on the iPod for New Orleans, with some mission-specific tunes from Louie Armstrong, Ike and Tina Turner, and a few others. Other pieces were meant to lighten the mood after visiting somber places like Selma, Alabama, and Money, Mississippi.

This is what Linda heard during the ride:

Day 1, Sept. 7: The City of New Orleans / Arlo Guthrie

Day 2, Sept. 8: Fill My Eyes / Cat Stevens

Day 3, Sept. 9: Just a Ride / Jem

Day 4, Sept. 10: You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice / The Lovin’ Spoonful1

Day 5, Sept. 11: Dog & Butterfly / Heart

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Day 6, Sept. 12: Proud Mary / Ike & Tina Turner

Day 7, Sept. 13: When the Saints Go Marching In / Louie Armstrong

Day 8, Sept. 14: Edge of the Ocean / Ivy

Day 9, Sept. 15: Chelsea Morning / Joni Mitchell

Day 10, Sept. 16: Baby You Know Me / Wolfboy Red

Day 11, Sept. 17: Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans / Louis Armstrong

Day 12, Sept. 18: I Only Have Eyes for You / The Flamingos

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Day 13, Sept. 19: Two Hearts / Phil Collins

Day 14, Sept. 20: Chattanooga Choo-Choo / Glen Miller & His Orchestra

Day 15, Sept. 21: Count On Me / Jefferson Starship

Day 16, Sept. 22: Captain of Her Heart / Double

Day 17, Sept. 23: It Don’t Come Easy / Ringo Starr

Day 18, Sept. 24: Sentimental Lady / Bob Welch

Day 19, Sept. 25: We Are the Champions / Queen

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The list wasn’t perfect, of course. I anticipated Chattanooga, but we changed course going home and unexpectedly stayed in Memphis. I would have given much for the haunting Walking in Memphis by Marc Cohn. Alas, I wasn’t packing a laptop, so there was no way to download it.

Not all of the songs were directly related to New Orleans. We heard You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice at dinner one night at the Italian Café, so it was sort of a touchstone in addition to the nice sentiment.

Two Hearts was blasting across the night in 2009 at a remote Shell station in Slovakia2. We had left Hungary, crossed the Danube River enroute to Zvolen, and got lost after dark. I shut down the rented BMW motorcycle to refuel at the gas station, where the song was playing, incongruously and very loud.

Louie Armstrong also carried a poignant reminder of Jozef Pavlovic, the husband of Iva, one of my relatives in Slovakia. He passed away unexpectedly in 2012 at a young age. We met him during our travels to Slovakia and Hungary and he was a truly wonderful person.

He liked Satchmo’s music and I thought about Jozef quite a few times during the ride. I deeply regret the inability to get to know him better, but I’ll always remember him.

Music preserves memories, they say. Accordingly, our mission soundtracks constitute a special archive all their own.


1 — I love the 1965 video of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Notice how someone hastily put a piece of paper with the band’s name on it over the front of the bass drum.
2 — Curiously, we heard American music everywhere during our two motorcycle trips in Europe. It may be common, but I had not expected it.

 

So This is Saraland

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Sept. 12 | Day 6: I sometimes do things for the most trivial of reasons1 and our stop in Saraland, Ala., was one of them.

At work four months earlier, I discovered Saraland by accident while compiling a massive database of retail store closings across the country. By coincidence, I was working with an intern named Sara2, a brilliant graduate student at American University.

“Hey, look,” I wrote when forwarding her the link. “They named a town after you.”

“As well they should,” she said.

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Idly curious, I searched for other Sara-named towns in the U.S. — Saraville, Sara City, Sara Heights — and found only this Saraland, a town of 13,000.

So Saraland became a bit of a running joke between us, though I suspect it was more of a one-way street running from me to her.

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The notion of actually visiting Saraland didn’t occur to me until Linda and I decided on New Orleans as the 2017 motorcycle ride. There were places I wanted to see in Alabama on our way outbound and Saraland fell into the flightpath.

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That’s why we’re spending a few moments here in Saraland, off I-65 some 43 miles south of Atmore, Ala.

Just for chuckles, I shoot a few Saraland photos and email them to Sara and I find a Hibbett Sports store3 where I get a Spartans athletic shirt. Linda and I have lunch at the Saraland Sonic4.

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I’ll carry that shirt aboard Terra Nova all the way back to Virginia. Later, I’ll box it up and send it to her at work. So now Sara has her own Saraland Spartans shirt purchased in Saraland.

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Sara and I may never work together again.

But we’ll always have Saraland5.


1 — I once visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., to see if I could find a Marine mentioned by Michael Herr in his excellent but disturbing book, Dispatches.
2 — Who went on to a better position, job-wise. She’s doing some great work, too.
3 — 723 Highway 43 South, Saraland, Alabama 36571
4 — 619 Highway 43 South, Saraland, Alabama 36571
5 — Apologies to Humphrey Bogart.

A Guy and His Dog

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(With apologies to Harlan Ellison for the title)

Sept. 16 | Day 10: We got up early on our last full day in New Orleans and walked over to Café Du Monde, where the beignets and cold milk are the best, and cut through Jackson Square on the way back.

The Square1 is crowded with tourists, street vendors and what looks to be homeless people, who’ve taken the lead in commandeering metal park benches that line the street.

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Linda wants to look at some shops along St. Peter Street and I investigate one or two myself and find high-priced stuff I don’t need. She’s in someplace that sells linen or something and I’m dawdling on the sidewalk when I hear raised voices across the street behind me.

I turn to see a group of six or seven apparently homeless guys on a bench angrily yelling at another guy nearby, also apparently homeless, with a medium-sized black-and-white dog. The dog owner is folding up a sheet of plastic.

“Don’t you hit that dog!” one of the bench dwellers says to the owner.

“That is not cool, man!” says another.

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The owner says nothing. I’m standing there trying to figure out what’s happened. The dog is on a leash and is following the owner, who’s finished packing his stuff and is walking off. The dog — and this is important to me — does not seem cowed or afraid.

The bench guys, briefly united against a perceived cruelty, settle down.

Linda returns and I tell her what happened, adding that I did not see the guy hit the dog and that the dog seemed okay.

We walk around the Quarter for a while longer, trying to savor this last day, knowing we’ll suit up and head into Mississippi on the motorcycles tomorrow.

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But now there’s a nagging thought at the back of my mind as we range from Chartres to Royal to Bourbon Street and beyond. Is that guy abusing his dog?

Linda and I have two dogs and four cats back home at Starbase 8 in Virginia. So we love dogs and cats and the notion that there’s a dog suffering out there on Jackson Square starts to consume me.

We make a reservation at Irene’s Cuisine for that night, our only dinner in the Quarter. We’ll walk there, of course, but now I have an idea.

“This is going to sound crazy, but I want to go by Jackson Square,” I say to Linda. “Let’s see if we can find that guy and his dog. I want to know.”

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My understanding wife consents to this ridiculous reconnaissance. Night falls as we regain the square, still sprinkled with tourists, and we walk the length of St. Peter Street twice under streetlights.

“We’re probably not going to find them,” I say, resigning myself to it, and suddenly, there they are.

There they are. We sort of surreptitiously follow them for a short distance — I want to see the relationship between the guy and the dog.

He’s a young guy, middle 20s, I think, and there doesn’t seem to be any abuse going on. We approach by asking about the dog, what he is, his age and that sort of thing. Linda pets the dog, who looks happy.

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Like this, sorta.

The guy thinks his dog is a mix of Dalmatian and some other breed. He came from friends who couldn’t keep him. The guy says he was living somewhere but has been on the street for a while.

“Would you have some change you could give me?” he asks, and I make the biggest mistake of the New Orleans ride and give him three measly dollars from a pants pocket, not wishing to pull out my wallet on the street.

He takes it with thanks but I sense he’s a tad disappointed that it’s not more. Or maybe that’s my projected guilt.

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Linda gives the dog a final pat and we say good-bye and watch them disappear into the night. The intersection ends there; we go to dinner and back to our lives, and he and his dog continue with theirs.

I’m relieved — greatly relieved — that the dog is okay but I kick myself a hundred times for not giving more to his owner. I’ve failed to live up to the example set by the baseball cap gentleman in Selma, Alabama, six days ago. All because I didn’t want to take out my wallet.

Later that night, I offer a bit of karmic atonement by donating online to the New Orleans Humane Society. But it isn’t enough.

The next day, two guys — the first with a baseball cap, the second with his dog — haunt me as I pack up the bikes. They stay with me as we ride north toward Hattiesburg, Miss., to pay tribute to a U.S. Navy pilot who died in Korea 67 years ago.


1 —  Jackson Square is named after President Andrew Jackson, considered the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The battle was a series of skirmishes between U.S. and British forces in 1814 and 1815, and is considered the last major engagement of the War of 1812.

Changing Course

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Sept. 18 | Day 12: The original plan was to leave New Orleans, ride to Natchez, Miss., and pick up the Natchez Trace northeast to Tennessee. We’d scheduled a full-day layover at Starbase Nashville to check the bikes and take it easy.

But we were only 111 miles from Hattiesburg, Miss., home of the African American Military History Museum. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since learning of Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first black carrier pilot.

We change plans and head for Hattiesburg, crossing Lake Pontchartrain on I-10.

A short — 39 seconds long — 360-degree video of the lake crossing. You can play the video and use your cursor to spin the image around and view it from different angles. It’s best with the sound off. (Trust me.) Go ahead, try it! You won’t break anything.

Brown, who broke the color barrier to Navy flight decks, is one of the most overlooked men in U.S. military history.

He grew up a sharecropper’s son in Hattiesburg and fell in love with flying while watching planes take off and land at a nearby airfield. He entered the Navy through the college V5 program while studying architecture at Ohio State University.

He persevered in flight training, endured some racist instructors, and earned his pilot’s wings.

XXX NORTH KOREA A PILOT'S PROMISE I FILE

He was flying a Corsair F4U-4 providing close-air support for Marines in the freezing Chosin Reservoir in North Korea when he was shot down by groundfire and crash-landed on Dec. 4, 1950.

His plane started smoking and threatened to catch fire. Brown was pinned inside.

Brown’s wingman, Lt. Thomas Hudner, ditched his own Corsair to try and save him. But Hudner and a Marine rescue helicopter pilot could not extract Brown, who froze to death in his own plane.

Hudner received a Medal of Honor for his attempted rescue. The Navy named a destroyer after him in 2017; I went to Bath, Maine, in April to cover the christening ceremony for the Navy Times. I was fortunate enough to meet Hudner there.

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Capt. Thomas Hudner, left, and Commander Nathan Scherry.

Brown has always fascinated me for his courage, for the way he refused to give up his dream of flying, even in the face of intense opposition. He didn’t just become a pilot, he became a Navy carrier pilot – the best of the best.

Yet he’s overlooked in history. Only two books have been written: Devotion by Adam Makos in 2015 and The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown by Theodore Taylor in 1999.

I’m not sure why that is. Most Americans are familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen, the ground-breaking African-American pilots who flew combat missions in World War II. But Jesse Brown is virtually unknown1.

The Hattiesburg museum helps remedy that with a detailed exhibit on Brown. That’s what I want to see.

Back on the bikes, we find the museum with little trouble. They’re usually closed on Mondays, but I’ve emailed them and Latoya Norman, the manager, kindly invites us to visit anyway. She unlocks the door and we leave our riding jackets and helmets by the front desk.

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The museum is a handsomely refurbished USO club that opened in 1942 for African American soldiers at Camp Shelby, an Army training site for armored vehicles north of Hattiesburg. Once inside, I marvel at the painstaking care with which the building has been restored. A common room, used for informal gathering, is warm and inviting. I can see myself playing chess by the stone fireplace.

Ms. Norman tells us to take our time and withdraws to her office to work. We find ourselves in a first-class museum.

“Look at all this,” I say to Linda.

The exhibits, covering service from the Revolutionary War to today, are well designed. Paintings and murals are exquisite and the lettered presentations have a Smithsonian quality. Someone put in a lot of love and effort here.

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I’m fascinated by all of it, especially the Jesse Brown exhibit, which has an imaginative presentation of him on the deck of the USS Leyte. I’m gratified to see Brown, an ensign, listed as flight leader, with Hudner, a lieutenant, as his wingman.

So many other references get it backwards. Hudner outranked Brown, but Brown had more flying experience, which qualified him as flight leader.

We soon thank Ms. Norman and take our leave, but Brown stays with me as we ride away.

I wonder about the ifs of that day in 1950 — if it had not been so cold, if the flight squadron had drawn a mission earlier in the day, if the Corsair had not been vulnerable to rifle fire from the ground, if the helicopter had carried a cutting torch, if a second rescue helicopter had been available … perhaps Brown might have survived.

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But what would he have come home to find? Mississippi and America were still mired in the Jim Crow era of unyielding racial segregation. Brown, like other African Americans, risked his life in service of his country; his life would’ve still been at risk from southern whites after he returned.

The civil rights movement wouldn’t really begin until four years after Brown’s death. I’ve wondered what he would have done, and I asked members of Brown’s family that question the day I met them in Maine.

“Oh, yes, I think he would have been part of it,” said Lura Brown, Jesse’s younger brother. “If not for himself, then certainly for his family. He would have gotten involved.”

I ponder that as we ride north that afternoon, through Jesse Brown’s lost Mississippi. We’ll be in Greenwood tonight. Emmett Till waits for us tomorrow.


1 — It  may be simply because Jesse Brown served in Korea; shamefully, Americans have never given the Korean War and its veterans their due.

A Stop at Bryant’s Grocery

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Sept. 19 | Day 13: We find the store — “the ghostliest structure in the South,” author Paul Theroux says —  shrouded in kudzu on a lonely stretch of Leflore County Road 518.

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Bryant’s Grocery Store and Meat Market is a collapsing two-story brick building in Money, a tiny community in Mississippi. The day after leaving Hattiesburg, Linda and I are stopping here on the motorcycle ride home from New Orleans, now 300 miles behind us.

This is a sacred place, worthy of attention. What happened here 62 years ago is still with us today.

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It was in this store, on Aug. 24, 1955, that Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old black teenager from Chicago, spoke with a white woman behind the counter and was horrifically murdered four days later in an act of brutality that shocked the nation.

Carolyn Bryant, 21, was the woman in the store. On Aug. 28, her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, both white, came with guns to the house where Till was staying with relatives. They took Till away.

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Till’s body, naked and mutilated beyond recognition1, was found in the Tallahatchie River on Aug. 31; he had been shot in the head. Bryant and Milam were tried for murder. Carolyn Bryant testified that Till had accosted her and whistled at her — a black man propositioning a white woman2.

After deliberating 67 minutes, an all-white jury acquitted the two men on Sept. 23.

Like Bloody Sunday on the Edmond Pettus bridge in Selma, Ala., 10 years later, coverage of Till’s death and the murder trial grabbed the national spotlight and helped drive the American civil rights movement3.

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Though Till was a teen, his brutal death might have eluded national attention during those unforgiveable Jim Crow times — countless other African-Americans were killed by whites who also escaped justice — had it not been for two things:

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Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago. “I said I want the world to see this because, there is no way I could tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like,” she said. The Sept. 3 service drew 50,000 people. Photographs of Till’s body were published in African-American magazines and sparked additional outrage. Till was buried Sept. 64.

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J.W. Milam, left, Roy Bryant and their wives celebrate the acquittal.

After the acquittal, journalist William Bradford Huie interviewed Bryant and Milam5 for a story that appeared Jan. 24, 1956, in the mass-market magazine Look6. The two men admitted killing Till and expressed no remorse. Despite the confession, they could not be tried again under the double-jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment7.

All this horror started here, in a simple grocery store that’s falling into itself. The roof is long gone, there are trees growing inside. The wood porch has collapsed. A sign stapled to plywood over broken windows warns trespassers will be prosecuted8.

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We shut down the bikes and look around. A Mississippi Freedom Trail sign out front explains the store’s significance. We later learn this sign is new — someone fired bullets into the first one, requiring a replacement.

The road is quiet with only two or three cars passing by. It’s as deserted as a town after the apocalypse.

Across the street, there’s an abandoned Canada National railroad locomotive that looks as if its engine has caught fire. The building next to the store looks like a old gas station under refurbishment. But there’s no one around.

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The store itself is cordoned off by orange netting, itself falling down. In the back, wood and old lengths of metal gutters are lying where they’ve fallen. On the south side, where the walls aren’t as heavy with vines, I can see the ghost of wood stairs angling up to the second floor.

And yet there are old signs of tribute: a white plastic planter is on the old concrete porch and there are long-dead flowers, roses perhaps, wrapped in clear plastic and tied with ribbon.

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So people have come here to remember Emmett Till and 1955, which is why we’re here, too. The institutionalized and relentless subjugation, the brutality of the murder,  the callous indifference of those who committed it and those who acquitted them, is beyond my comprehension.

And though it seems like a poor effort on our part to even stop here, we would have been remiss in simply passing by.

History like this has to be remembered, because it will confront us again and again and again. I think of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, for example, and I wonder how those people would have treated Emmett Till.

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As we prepare to leave, I find thick shards of glass on the concrete porch, small pieces of a shattered front window. I consider taking one for a colleague I respect, a journalist and virtual civil-rights scholar.

I hold the glass for a while, thinking about putting it in Terra Nova’s tankbag, but it doesn’t seem right. It’s like stealing from a cemetery. I put it back but I tell my colleague about it after Linda and I get home.

“You did the right thing,” she says. “You were on hallowed ground.”

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1 — He was identified by a ring on his hand.
2 — After decades of silence, Carolyn Bryant, now 83, recanted her testimony in 2007. In an interview with historian Timothy Tyson, she said Till did not accost her or touch her. She was unable to say exactly what Till did in the store that day, but she did say, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Her memoirs are at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill archives but won’t be made public until 2036.
3 — Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, is credited with starting the freedom movement. She considered moving to the back of the bus, but, as she told the Rev. Jesse Jackson later, she thought about Emmett Till and “couldn’t do it.”
4 — Till’s body was exhumed in June 2005 as part of a federal investigation into Deep South murders during the Jim Crow era. DNA tests proved conclusively that the body was that of Till, but no new charges were filed. The original glass-topped coffin, which by law could not be reburied, was later found at the cemetery and donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2009.
5 — J.W. Milam died of cancer in 1981; Roy Bryant died of cancer in 1994.
6 — William Bradford Huie and Look magazine paid Milam, Bryant and their attorney a total of $4,000 for the interview, about $37,000 today, accounting for inflation.
7 — Huie talked to both men again for another Look article that was published on Jan. 22, 1957. He found both had suffered financially after the community turned against them. Black workers refused to work for them and black boycotts shut down their businesses. Even many whites turned against them, some fearing they might be shot, too. It was difficult for the two to get loans for farming.
At the time of the second interview, Milam was driving the same Chevrolet pickup truck in which Till was taken.
Over the years, other details have been brought to light. Tyson’s spellbinding 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” lists others present at the time of Till’s death and postulates a relative of Milam pulled the fatal trigger.
8 — The building is reportedly owned by a son of one of the jurors who acquitted Bryant and Milam. Over the years, plans have been floated to turn it into some sort of civil rights museum, but nothing has come to fruition.

 

I Am the Angel of Death — Behold, Thy Day of Reckoning is At Hand

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“Sinatra probably forgot about it at once, but Harlan Ellison will remember it all his life.”

— Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”

Sept. 22 | Day 16: We leave Nashville in mid-morning, bound for Bowling Green, Ky., where Linda’s meeting an old friend from college. The Vespa’s speedometer is still offline — broken, as I’d discovered the day before — so she’s taking it easy. I’m flying wing behind her, as usual.

It’s Friday and traffic is already choking our exit and apparently making some drivers crazy. A guy in an oncoming red pickup truck makes a surprise and illegal U-turn in front of Linda on a city street, forcing her to brake. He races away as we pause at a stoplight.

“Did you see that?” she says, and I say yes, what an idiot. There’s a tenseness on the street that I normally would not associate with Nashville. We get on the freeway and head north.

Traffic is still heavy but starts thinning out as we proceed. We move to the left-hand lane and throttle up to the speed limit.

It happens when I’m about half a football field behind her. A beat-up brown Chevy Suburban in the center lane makes a panicky move around a white panel truck and cuts violently into Linda’s lane, coming this close to knocking her over.

I see this from too far back and my only thought is the certainty that she’s going to go down. I’m already bracing myself for the impact, knowing how bad it will be. I know it. I know it. The picoseconds stretch out and I start thinking about how I’ll stop behind her, prevent cars from running over her, stop the bleeding, call an ambulance, watch them load her into the back.

She swerves, the Vespa pitching from side to side, and heads for the breakdown lane, pulling away at the last second to avoid the killer rumble strips in the asphalt. She keeps it upright. The Suburban jerks back into the center lane.

And this is where I make things worse. I drop it down a gear, rocket up to the Suburban, pull even, lay on the horn, and flip off the driver. He starts to say something but I turn away and speed up to Linda. My heart’s beating in triple time.

She seems all right and we keep going. It’s okay, I tell myself, she’s okay. We’re good, we’re good.

Then the Suburban reappears on my right, the driver leaning out his window, holding out something in his hand, literally screaming “YOU SEE THIS? YOU SEE THIS?” and he’s got some kind of police badge.

My first thought is ah, great, a psychopath with a badge, and we glare at each other across the white lines. He’s daring me to do something.

And that’s when I somehow go completely calm and I hear a quiet voice in my head — as relaxed as having tea with an old friend in a drawing-room — saying you know, any move you make will be the wrong one.

I turn away and he says “I DIDN’T THINK SO,” or somesuch, winning the argument, I guess, and moves away.

Linda tells me later he passes her after me and says “HEY, RELAX,” and she ignores him. He changes lanes and is gone.

We soon arrive in Bowling Green without further incident. Linda says she was scared and yelled at the guy herself. As in Underwood, Ala., she’s remarkably resilient.

But the encounter will lay heavy on my mind for days. In Bridgeport, W. Va., a day or two later, I talk with a guy piloting a silver BMW with a sweet sidecar rig and the story spills out of me, with the confession I hadn’t helped.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” the guy says after a moment. “It’s hard, but you can’t really challenge them. You don’t know who’s behind the wheel. Could be someone with a gun, you just don’t know.”

I stopped dwelling on the incident a while ago, but I do think about it from time, hoping the next time — and there will always be a next time — that I’ll keep my head and de-escalate the situation.

Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll try. I’m certain, though, that like Harlan Ellison meeting Frank Sinatra, I’ll remember it all my life.

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It Ain’t Easy to See the Easy Rider Cemetery

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Sept. 15 | Day 9: We didn’t ride to New Orleans because of Easy Rider, but since we were there anyway, why not visit a site that was featured in the movie?

I like to ride motorcycles, so it stands to reason I watch motorcycle movies, though most are admittedly dreadful.

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But I will watch Easy Rider every now and again. The 1969 classic, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper (who also directed) and Jack Nicholson, follows two long-haired chopper riders from Los Angeles to New Orleans.

There’s a memorable — some say confusing — New Orleans sequence in which Fonda and Hopper and two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil) drop acid in a cemetery, have sex, and generally freak out.

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Those scenes were shot in New Orleans Cemetery No. 11, which opened in 1789 in the French Quarter. Filming took place without permission and the Catholic Church, which owns the cemetery, was reportedly scandalized when the movie opened.

I’m looking for the large statue that Fonda climbed on, and — using real, personal angst to drive his character in the film — began talking about his mother’s suicide.

Frances Ford Seymour, the second wife of actor Henry Fonda and mother of actors Peter and Jane Fonda, committed suicide2 on April 14, 1950. Peter was 10 years old.

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As the camera rolled, he used that awful memory to get into his character’s bad trip while sitting on “Italia” in the Italian Benevolent Society Tomb, a mausoleum that was built in 1857 at Cemetery No. 1.

“Italia” is the statue I want to see.

We get to the gate at Cemetery No. 1 and a woman sitting at a card table just inside says, “That’ll be $20 for the tour.”

“Excuse me,” I say. “We’re not with the tour. We just want to look around ourselves.”

“You can’t do that,” the woman says. “You have to join a tour. It’s $20 per person.”

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“You have to pay to look around the cemetery?”

“Yes,” the woman says. “You have to join the tour. It’s $20 per person.”

“Hmm.” I say. “Well, no, thank you.”

And we leave. Forty dollars to look at a cemetery?

I’m rather stunned at this, and I kvetch to Linda on our way back to the hotel. A sign at the gate says tour proceeds are used for the cemetery’s upkeep, but it looks as though most of the money is going elsewhere.

“Oh, yes,” says the hotel concierge upon our return. “They’ve been doing that for years. It helps keep out the vandals. I’m surprised they didn’t charge more.”

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We later find out that the Roman Catholic Diocese of New Orleans closed the cemetery to the public in 2015 but allowed tour companies to pay the diocese for rights to conduct for-pay tours. If you have a relative buried there, you can apply for a permit to visit.

So Cemetery No. 1 is now a for-profit venture.

Still curious about New Orleans cemeteries, we take a streetcar out to the Garden District and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, built in 1833, where most of these pictures were taken. It reminds me a bit of Père Lachaise in Paris, historic, sobering, haunted.

I later discover that “Italia” has not fared very well. At some point, either by vandals or natural means, the statue’s head has come off, along with one of the hands. Other statues are damaged, too.

Which is obviously pretty sad. Maybe I was too quick to forgo the cemetery tour, but tell me who’s repairing that statue and I’ll be the first to put my contribution directly into their marble-dust-covered hands.

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1 — Yes, that’s its real name.
2 — Jane Fonda, writing her memoirs decades later, discovered her mother had been sexually abused as a child.

 

Where Does Your Music Come From?

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Sept. 14 | Day 8: We were in some home furnishings shop that Linda had dragged me into on Chartres or Decatur Street, when I start listening to the music playing in the store and thought to myself this is pretty good.

It’s a haunting song, and knowing I would never remember any lyrics that would let me find it later, I ask the 20-something woman at the counter if she can tell me the title.

She looks at her computer screen and says, “Peaches. The group is ‘In the Valley Below,’” and bingo, I realize I’ve made another accidental music discovery.

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Some people say our taste in music stalls out as we age (we stop listening to new stuff and are content with what we know) while others say our preferences simply evolve.

Growing up, I didn’t really seek out music. I caught stuff on the radio sometimes, and benefited from suggestions of my more-astute friends.

For example, Steve Wargo, one of my oldest friends, introduced me to David Bowie, Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, Pure Prairie League, and many others, for which I am eternally grateful. Many of those songs are on my iPod today.

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But nowadays, music seems to find its way to me by happenstance, with some notable tunes surfacing during our motorcycle rides. Some of the music I’ve discovered by accident:

  • Into My Soul” by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Gabin in Budapest, Hungary, during our 2009 ride.
  • “Wish to Fly” from “Best of Chilhowie” in Zvolen, Slovakia, in our 2011 ride.
  • Powerful” from Skye Edwards’ “Mind How You Go” in a series of motel room AMC commercials on my way back from San Diego aboard Endurance in 2006.

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There are others, of course, but the motorcycle tunes seem to stand out the most. The music filters through the cacophony of life and I pick it up in bits and pieces, track it down the best I can, and add it to my collection. Maybe I need to develop new listening habits. Or just ride more.

Kept the Date

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Sept. 20 | Day 14: As promised — back in August — we made it to the Loveless Café in Nashville on Wednesday night, parking the bikes in the coveted “motorcycles only” spaces after riding in from Memphis that morning.

We were tired, so our celebratory dinner was rather subdued. The restaurant turned out to be over-air-conditioned, so I got a gray souvenir sweatshirt for Linda. It was easier than breaking into the sidecases and less ridiculous than wearing the riding jacket.

Best biscuits and jam I ever had, though.

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All on the Same Day (Part 2: Selma, Alabama)

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Sept. 11 | Day 5: The waterproof mapcase resigns without notice somewhere between Underwood and Selma, turning my AAA Alabama issue into rain-soaked mush. We’re playing hit-and-run with Hurricane Irma’s skirts today and we soldier on, getting irreparably drenched.

We reach Selma and stop on a side street before crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge so I can switch on the GoPro camera attached to my helmet. A long stoplight separates Linda and me, so I cross the Alabama River alone.

That bridge, a symbol of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, opened in May 1940 and was named — doesn’t this just figure — after Edmund Winston Pettus, a U.S. senator, Confederate general and KKK leader in Alabama. He died in 1907 and is buried about a mile from it.

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The span was designated a national landmark in 2013. Today, it’s quiet with meager traffic moving through the rain. Weather-wise, it’s a miserable day.

We park the bikes at the bridge’s southern end and look around. A group of tourists, students maybe, files off the bridge and crowds into a tour bus, but otherwise it’s quiet.

We walk across the bridge ourselves, both ways. It’s a solid, massive structure. I try, but can’t begin to imagine, what those brave marchers felt in 1965, knowing that baton- and tear-gas-wielding state troopers were waiting for them.

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There’s a small park dedicated to Bloody Sunday and the civil rights movement, but it’s deserted and lonely in the rain. Nearby shops appear rundown; some are boarded up.

Selma is located in Dallas County, which has a high unemployment rate: 7.7% in August, compared to the national average of 4.4%. An Auburn University report sets the county’s poverty rate at nearly 37%. We see ample evidence of this as we ride through Selma.

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This isn’t white guy discovers Southern poverty — Southern poverty is not new, economic stats for other Southern counties are shockingly higher, and it’s been this way for generations. But this is the first I’m seeing with my own eyes.

And history waits patiently everywhere.

We’re wet, tired, and hungry, and Linda finds a Church’s Chicken outlet about a mile from the bridge. We park the bikes and peel off wet rainsuits with difficulty.

Behind the restaurant, we can’t help but notice an abandoned four-story brick building, its windows broken, grass growing wild. “Good Samaritan Center” is across the front.

I’ll think it’s some sort of housing unit until later, when I discover it’s the Good Samaritan Hospital.

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The Good Samaritan Hospital. Oh my God. This is where Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, a Baptist church deacon and civil rights activist from Marion, Ala., died on Feb. 25, 1965. He was shot by an Alabama state trooper following a peaceful protest for a jailed civil rights worker. Jackson, unarmed, was shielding his mother from police assault.

Jackson’s death was the catalyst for the Bloody Sunday march weeks later. The people injured during Bloody Sunday were treated at this same hospital1.

But I’m unaware I’m standing in front of a historic place as we turn away and enter the restaurant.

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There are two or three other customers. We grab a table, pile the dripping rainsuits in a corner (they’ll create a puddle roughly the size of Lake Superior, which I’ll mop up later) and order chicken.

As we eat and fuss with maps, other customers begin to drift in and soon the place is half-filled. As it happens, we’re the only whites there. A couple folks, seeing the helmets, ask about our ride and Linda entertains them with stories about the Vespa. They wish us well.

One guy in a Minnesota Vikings shirt engages us in lengthy conversation, telling us about himself and asking where we’re from. He asks, as politely as possible, if I have any money and I give him two or three dollars I find in a jacket pocket.

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Seeing this, a friend of his, a younger guy in a baseball cap, inserts himself amiably into our conversation and they exchange few friendly barbs. It’s plain they know one another. (Linda will later say she thought he was a counselor of some sort — he had that vibe.) As I pick up the rainsuits, preparing to leave, the baseball cap guy asks:

“Say, how much, how much did you give that guy?”

“Oh, not much,” I say. “A dollar or two, I think. Not much.”

“Listen, I know that guy,” Baseball Cap says. “He’s just gonna drink it up. You don’t have to give him something.”

“It’s okay,” I say.

“Here,” Baseball Cap says, pulling something out of his jeans pocket. “Y’all are traveling. I want you to be safe, to travel safe. Here, take this.” And he presses some crumpled bills in my hand.

I’m astonished. Even a non-motorcycle person can see Linda and I are not in need. We’re wearing pricey, armored riding suits (mine with patches from the places we’ve traveled — Slovakia, Hungary, Quebec and the Blue Ridge Parkway) and carrying Arai helmets, one with a GoPro video camera attached.

“Sir, this is really, really nice of you, but, really, we’re okay,” I say. “Please, I really can’t take this.”

“No, no, you keep it,” he says. “Y’all are on the road. You keep it, okay?”

And this is where I fail miserably. In the milliseconds that follow, I struggle to think coherently but I can’t find a way to gracefully decline. Baseball Cap is totally sincere.

“All right. Okay.” I say. “Thank you, sir. This is very kind of you, thank you.” And we shake hands.

“Y’all be good,” he says, as we leave.

I take the crumpled bills and shove them securely into an empty pants pocket, where they’ll stay for the next 130 miles as I wonder, in the solitude of my helmet, why a stranger in one of the poorest counties in America should give us a couple of bucks.

Everything is soaked, including that helmet. At fuel stops, it’s like sticking my head in a bucket of cold water when I put it on.

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We press south through steady rain. The Vespa runs low on fuel and the Oak Hill Grocery on Alabama 21 has only 87 octane (the bikes prefer 91) and an awning that doesn’t provide much cover. I pour our 1-gallon reserve into Linda’s tank and top it off with 87 as she tries to stop the rain from falling in.

Finally, we arrive at Atmore, Ala., our destination for the night.

“All I need is a guest laundry and some old towels and I’ll be happy,” I tell Linda as we shut down the bikes. It’s after dark and the rain has let up at last.

She reports the hotel doesn’t have any rags. “They say they threw out everything a week ago.”

I won’t be deterred. We need rags to stuff inside our sopping helmets, boots and gloves, to dry them out. We end up taking Terra Nova to a Walmart five miles away, where we find they’ve just had a power outage and are waiting for their computers to recover. Holding a couple stacks of towels, we make friends in the delayed checkout line.

Our long wet day is winding down at last. Inside our room, the gear is spread out to dry. Bath towels are stuffed inside our boots and in both helmets. Washcloths are inserted into our gloves. I’m using the guest laundry machines to wash and dry everything I can. We’re good.

Until I clear out my riding suit and find the crumpled bills given me by the baseball cap guy in Selma. I thought he’d given me two dollars.

He didn’t. There were two five-dollar bills in that pocket. Ten bucks. Ten bucks from a guy who thought I needed it more than he did.

“Look at this,” I say to Linda, and we talk about what to do with it, how to pay it forward2.

It’s only much later that night, when everything is dry and folded and put away, when the room is dark and silent and I’m awake and staring at the ceiling, that I think about how I didn’t even ask his name. Or those of the two landscapers in Underwood who stopped to lift the Vespa.

Or how folks who have little can be more willing to offer help than those with a lot.

And how all this — all of this — happened on the same day.

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1 — Good Samaritan was built in 1944 and closed in 1983. In 2016, city and county officials proposed reopening the hospital as a specialized clinic; funding did not materialize and the plans remain in limbo.
2 — We later donated to the Selma Food Bank.

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All on the Same Day (Part 1: Underwood, Alabama)

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Sept. 11 | Day 5: We suit up for rain that morning in Birmingham, Ala., knowing we’ll get wet this day, even though the mission navigator1 has kept us away from Hurricane Irma. It’s already drizzling as I load the Vespa and Terra Nova.

We leave I-65 and head south on county roads toward Selma, Ala., a holy site of the American civil rights movement.

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It was there on March 7, 1965, a day known as Bloody Sunday, that Alabama state troopers prevented a group of voting rights protesters from marching from Selma to Montgomery by brutally attacking and beating them bloody.

That horrific assault, the savagery of which cannot be overstated — photos and videos of it are still difficult to see, even today – galvanized the American public and Lyndon Johnson ordered federal troops and National Guardsmen to protect the marchers in a subsequent attempt. They walked for five days and reached Montgomery on March 25.

The violence of that time tipped the balance of American opinion. Historians say it made it easier to pass the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.

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The courage of those marchers, who knew the awful danger they faced, has never failed to move me. We plan on stopping in Selma and seeing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an iconic focal point of the marches.

The rain grows stronger, nearly torrential, as we head south on 261 and 17 past Helena, Brantleyville and other small towns. This is classic rural country, black asphalt roads, gently rolling hills, lots of trees and fields. Traffic is almost nonexistent. The rain forces me to keep the helmet visor cracked open a bit, up enough to prevent it fogging up, down enough to keep the rain from stinging my face.

In Underwood, Highway 17 ends at 22. We turn left, passing a small Citgo gas station, then a quick right to head south on County Road 15.

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Ahead of me, Linda makes the right onto 15 and I watch in shocked amazement as the Vespa slips out below her and she falls down hard on the asphalt.

The scooter slides across the road on its right side and she is underneath. I am so surprised I find myself thinking How did that happen? Is she moving?

I hit the brakes, slow down, and roll ahead of her, thinking to myself, Be careful. Don’t make this worse.

I stop Terra Nova, hit the kill switch for an emergency shutdown, kick the sidestand, and get off as quickly as I can. She’s still on the ground as I rush over.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” I ask. The Vespa’s engine is still running and I hit its kill switch and start pulling at the scooter, trying to move it off her.

She says she’s all right. “I don’t know what happened,” she says, and starts wriggling out from underneath the Vespa.

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I start to defocus from crisis mode and realize — the perceptions arriving late, a second or two out of sync — that a couple of cars have already passed us without stopping. Some sort of white SUV glides past, barely slowing down.

Then there are two guys beside me, in the rain, and they help wrestle the Vespa upright. They’re Hispanic, two working guys, their truck says they’re landscapers. Linda gets up and we thank them profusely, in our crappy Spanish: gracias señors, muchas gracias.

They are the only ones who stop.

Linda walks back to the gas station, literally across the street, and I push the Vespa behind her. Rain is still falling. I park the scooter under the storefront awning, make sure she is all right, and fetch the Yamaha.

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We get drinks and Motrin from the gas station store, make sure we’re calmed down, and assess what happened. “What did I do wrong?” she says.

Not a damn thing. I had eyes on her the entire time she was making the turn and I assure her she did nothing wrong. She made a proper turn at a cautious speed. Her tires have good tread and were properly inflated. I had checked them myself.

Searching for a reason — we always need to know why — I walk back out in the rain, looking for oil or coolant on the road surface, something that would have thrown the Vespa. I find nothing.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. The simplest explanation, the one I believe, is that something on the road surface made her fall. She’s wearing good riding gear, which absorbed some of the impact, but still…

“What do you want to do?” I ask, knowing her answer will decide whether we abort the mission here and now. “Do you want to stop or keep going?”

“I’m okay,” she says. “I might be a little sore later. But let’s keep going.”

This is worthy of comment: As you may imagine, many people get spooked after falling off a motorcycle, even a low-speed get-off, especially not knowing exactly why it happened. Self-doubt arrives and towels get thrown in. It’s really easy to quit and go home.

We saddle up and head out. She makes the same turn on 15 without incident and I find myself thinking that’s a hell of a woman as we ride on toward Selma. The rain continues to fall.

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1 — That would be Linda.

 

But They Did Get Us Home

Oct. 1 | Six days later: We got back on Sept. 25, having traveled 2,896 miles in about 18 days – 17 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes, to be exact. The bikes ran well, but not without complications.

On the return leg in Decaturville, Tenn., the Vespa’s speedometer and odometer died, the needle comatose at zero, making me suspect I had not tightened the speedometer cable while installing the new windscreen back home.

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I tore into the headlight nacelle – again – at Starbase Nashville, Linda’s parents’ home, only to discover the cable was attached but broken. The four closest shops told me the part would have to be special-ordered. I decided we could go without, promising to replace it once we got home.

Again underway, outside of Ashland, Ky., the Vespa began to hesitate a bit, a microsecond of indecision when Linda accelerated on long downhill runs. It was annoying but not particularly troublesome if it did not get worse.

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We made it home without further incident, arriving after dark, exhausted. I pulled everything off the bikes and put the shrouds on. I left them in the driveway like that for six days, as we went back to work, paid bills, and sorted through our gear.

With time to breathe, I walked the Vespa to its parking spot out back (making mental notes on what it needed) climbed aboard Terra Nova, turned the key, and hit the starter button.

The engine cranked, but did not fire. Wait, what?

I switched off, waited a bit, and tried again. Same thing. Well, that’s never happened before.

Just for chuckles, I tried the Vespa. It fired right up.

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I could not get upset — still can’t. The bikes had done what we’d asked on five consecutive longrides without so much as a cough. So I dare not complain when my motorcycle strands me in my own driveway at the end of a ride. Of all places to break down, that has to be the best.

And finally, as if to emphasize end of mission, I had to cut the lawn, which resembled a rain forest after three weeks of neglect. But the Briggs & Stratton needed gas, so I poured some of Terra Nova’s precious 93 octane reserve into the definitely-not-a-motorcycle lawnmower engine. It fired right up, too.


Addendum: I went to the online Yamaha Super Tenere forum and found Terra Nova probably has a problem with its ECU — engine control unit, the bike’s computer. I charged the battery and started the engine using a multi-step process of ignition key and kill switch manipulation. Later, it started normally when the weather warmed up. So she’s mobile, but there’s more to be done.

Four from the Quarter

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Sept. 13 | Day 7: We parked the motorcycles inside the hotel garage and spent four days in New Orleans, most of them prowling the French Quarter, which utterly fascinated me. I was seized by the energy and vibrancy of those streets, the architecture, the music on every corner, the people crowding the sidewalks. It awakened a long-dormant desire for street photography, to document every moment in Henri Cartier-Bresson style. These musicians were really good.

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Elaborate wrought-iron balconies and posts are everywhere. I liked the solitary figure of the postman against the dark door, the color of the walls, the overhead fans on the balcony.

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This couple was married in a public ceremony in Jackson Square and — in classic New Orleans tradition — celebrated all the way down Chartres Street to their reception, accompanied by the Jaywalkers, a second-line brass band.

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I was desperate to capture the intensity of the violinist’s face against the dark doorway behind her, but I didn’t get it. I distracted her, I think, violating the first rule of what not to do when photographing someone. I had only a wide-angle lens and was lying in the street, oblivious, shooting upward, searching for the best angle. Her nervous companion stood guard and prevented a delivery truck from running over me.

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We took a streetcar named St. Charles to the Garden District. The car itself was right out of the 1950s, with marvelous old woodwork and small brass eyelets for the cord you pulled to signal the driver to stop.

 

A Date at the Loveless

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It took me a while to punch through work and the other obligations that kept crowding in, but we finally have a mission profile that will take us to New Orleans and back.

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This year’s ride won’t be on a par with Long Way Round but it will offer some high points:

We may see an old friend of mine from high school – 40 years ago! – if our schedules allow.

We’ll ride the Natchez Trace again. We rode the Trace exactly once 15 years ago and we’re looking forward to seeing it.

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We’ll get to ride along the Gulf Coast from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans and we’ll ride part of U.S. 61, immortalized by Bob Dylan in his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.

We may get the chance to visit the African American Military History Museum, which has a special permanent exhibit for Jesse Leroy Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first black aviator.

And on the way home, we’ll do a one-day layover in Nashville and have dinner at the Loveless Café, one of our favorite places. We’ve been there before, but never on the motorcycles.

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Note from the mission historian: The Loveless Cafe has no relation to The Loveless movie, a 1981 film noir by Kathryn Bigelow starring Willem Dafoe.

The restaurant began in 1951 when Lon and Annie Loveless sold fried chicken and biscuits out of their home to travelers on Highway 100. The food proved popular, they converted the house to a restaurant and later built a motel.

The motel eventually closed – small shops occupy the rooms these days – but the restaurant’s Southern culinary fare has become part of American mythos. You may have seen the Loveless Café on TV, on shows that venture out of big cities in search of country fare.

So Linda and I have made a date at the café. Being there on the motorcycles at the end of a ride will make the Loveless Café part of our folklore, too.

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Getting Back on Track

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“Yeah, I’m hip about time. But I just gotta go.”

– Peter Fonda (as Wyatt), “Easy Rider”

After much procrastination, delay, and downright dithering, we’ve decided to forgo The Great River Road for now and head to New Orleans in September for this year’s motorcycle ride.

It’s never taken us this long to decide where the annual motorcycle ride will go and I can’t explain the delay. Time, age and work have been more of a distraction this year.

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We figure about 2,400 miles total, but we don’t have a real mission profile yet. There are some good possibilities, including Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Tennessee, then southwest to Mobile, Alabama, where we’ll pick up coastal roads to New Orleans.

Then maybe we’ll head northeast on the Natchez Trace, which we haven’t been on since 2002.

Linda’s been to New Orleans twice, the last time for an Investigative Reporters and Editors seminar last year, but I’ve never been there.

Closest I got was I-10 north of Lake Pontchartrain in 2000 in my uncle’s car during a madcap dash from San Diego to Flagler Beach, Florida, to my grandmother’s funeral. Not much joy then.

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But I’ve always wondered what it would be like to arrive in New Orleans aboard a motorcycle. Perhaps that comes from reading too many Tennessee Williams plays, or being swept away by the romantic history of the French Quarter, or simply watching Easy Rider too many times. But at last, I’ll be there.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t end like Easy Rider.